These aren’t the gods you’re looking for.

These aren’t the gods you’re looking for. February 8, 2014

I think I’ve come to a resolution.

A few years ago, when I first started interacting with the Pagan online community, it seemed like everyone was talking the language of devotional polytheism.  A lot of people were very excited and passionate about it (as they continue to be today).  Even Janet Farrar — who had basically written the book (or the books) on Jungian “polytheism” — was writing and talking about a whole different type of experience that she (and Gavin Bone) called “deity-centered”.  It happened that I was looking to deepen my religious practice (when am I not?), and I was intrigued.  So, my first question was whether devotional polytheists were really having a categorically different religious experience than I was familiar with.  And, if they were, my second question was how I could tap into that — because it sounded awesome!  I mean literally awe-some, as in causing awe.  I think some of my readers may not realize that the reason I have been querying devotional polytheism for the last couple of years is, not because I was out to destroy it, but because I was seriously considering it.

The problem was that I had difficulty going there mentally.  It was not just that the existence of intangible and invisible, but conscious and sentient beings went against my belief about what was real.  It was that I had come to Paganism precisely because it seemed down to earth, literally and figuratively, and the idea of literal gods seemed ungrounded to me.  (I have since learned from conversations with many devotional polytheists that they do not experience it that way.)  Of course, there were other common Pagan beliefs that were too metaphysical for my taste, like magic, but magic could be understood in a number of metaphorical ways other than causing physical change at a distance with your mind.  But gods, real gods, like Zeus and Thor, that’s hard to overlook.  And what’s more, some people were saying that this was really what Paganism was all about.

My instinct was to try to relate it to what I knew … Jungian Neo-Paganism.  Maybe we’re talking about the same thing, but using different language, I thought.  After all, Jung himself talked to archetypal images out loud … and they talked back!  Maybe we were all having similar experiences, but interpreting them differently, I thought.  But I have slowly come around to the opinion that that is not the case.

For example, in one of my recent virtual tea times, Bianca Bradley, a devotional polytheist, asked me whether my gods ever “pestered” me.  Well, no.  I know the experience of psychological complexes “possessing” me, like when I am overwhelmed with rage or passion, and in more subtle ways — but who hasn’t had that experience?  And I know the experience of standing in a forest or the beach and line separating me from the world seems to dissolve — but that is not an uncommon experience either.  In any case, that’s clearly not what Bianca meant.  She meant pestered, like one person pestering another person, the way my tween daughter pesters my teen son.  No, my “gods” don’t pester me that way.  Because they’re not persons.

I remembered a post that John Beckett had written last month, where he distinguished the worship of Poseidon and the worship of the sea:

“Do you worship Poseidon or do you worship The Sea?  In the distance I hear Poseidon roaring like Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean:  ‘I AM THE SEA!’  Perhaps.  But Poseidon has one history, one set of stories, one personality.  The Sea has another.  Poseidon hears prayers and accepts offerings – or not, as He sees fit.  The Sea simply is.

“Both are beautiful and powerful and I stand in awe of both.  It seems reasonable to me to worship both.  But because Poseidon has human-like qualities (which is NOT the same thing as believing “the Gods are just like humans only bigger”) I can relate to him very differently from how I can relate to The Sea.  A religion based on mutually beneficial relationships with Deities with human-like qualities will of necessity look and feel very different from a religion based on mutually beneficial relationships with the Natural world.  But there is clearly room for both in the Big Tent of Paganism, as well as room for both in the corner of polytheism.”

A few nights ago, I participated in a Google+ hangout with John and several other Pagans and polytheists.  And the thing is, you can’t listen to John Beckett describe his experience of Cernunnos without realizing that he does know the difference between the forest god and the forest.  After the conversation, I was more convinced than ever that we really are not talking about the same thing at all.  I was left with a certain uneasiness, and it took me a couple of hours until I was able to articulate what was bothering me.  What I came up with was this question:

Do I really want to have this experience?  Do I want to experience the gods this way, the way that devotional polytheists describe, as persons, as historical deities? 

And the answer that I came up with was “No.”

At this point, for me, it’s not so much question of whether the polytheists’ gods are real.  It’s just not what I’m looking for.  I like where my spiritual practice is taking me.  I find it challenging and positive.  My conception of the “gods” satisfies my rational mind and also engages my emotional self.  It’s true that I do want to deepen my practice.  Which is why I have been engaging polytheists in discussion over the last couple of years.  And this has moved me in the direction of a more devotion (albeit non-theistic) practice.  But I realize now that what I am looking for from “gods” is the presence and power, but not the person.  I want the gods of the Romantics, not the gods of the ancients.  I want Pan, but I want Algernon Blackwood’s Pan and Kenneth Grahame’s Pan, not the Pan of ancient Arcadia.  I want Dionysus, but I want Nietzsche’s Dionysus, not the Dionysus of Euripides or Nonnus.  I want the Great Goddess of Charles Swinburne and Teilhard de Chardin, not any goddesses of the ancient Greeks or Celts or Norse.  You may say that the gods of the Romantics are poetic inventions, to which I would point out the Euripides and Nonnus and all the rest were just the poets of their time.  In any case, I’ve realized that I am just not looking for encounters with historical deities or personal gods.

The only hesitation I have about this confession arises from the ridicule it invites from certain devotional polytheists.  For all the talk about devotional polytheists being a persecuted minority within Paganism, certain polytheists will express open contempt for any mention of gods or goddesses which does not conform to their experience.  What’s more, many polytheists describe their spirituality as a kind of esoteric center of which “vague” nature worship or archetypal “polytheism” are an exoteric periphery.  Of course, there’s nothing new about this kind of elitism.  Before devotional polytheists were talking this way, many initiatory Wiccans used the same language to describe non-initiatory or celebratory Paganism.  “We are initiates into the mysteries, true priests and priestesses,” they seem to say, “while the hoi polloi of the Pagan laity plays around with its unresponsive and metaphorical deities.”  The rhetoric about polytheists’ gods being “dangerous” and other Pagans’ gods being “safe” is part and parcel of this.  I admit that this language has caused me to question the authenticity of my own experiences on more than one occasion, but in the end it’s been a productive questioning.

by Alexander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer has recently done a hilarious, spot-on post about this whole “What is a polytheist?” discussion with cartoons included.  That’s me shaking my box in the panel on the right.  But I’ve decided I’m tired of shaking my box.  Just like in e. e. cumming’s poem, I have pinched and poked and prodded, squeezed and buffeted the “sweet spontaneous earth” that she might conceive gods, and she answers me only with spring.  I’ve heard several polytheists say (often without any judgment) that polytheism isn’t for everyone, and they’re right.  At some point in my spiritual journey, I have to stop looking over other people’s shoulders and wondering what’s in their box, wondering if someone might be having a deeper spiritual experience than me.  I guess I am at that point.  I appreciate those polytheists who have let me shake their boxes for a while, but I’ve decided I like my box just fine.  I’m pretty sure it’s empty.  But it’s a special kind of emptiness (like the “Pregnant Abyss” of Milton and Emerson’s “Wise Silence”).  In any case, it’s my box and I’m keeping it.

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  • I’m glad you’ve found the gods you’ve been looking for. I selfishly wish they were the gods I’ve found, but they’re not. Another point I tried to make on Wednesday was that experiences are what they are, and your beliefs have to conform to your experiences, not mine.

    When I was leaving Christianity I wondered if it was necessary, if I had to leave the faith of my immediate family. I realized I’d do far more good as an enthusiastic Pagan than as a reluctant Christian and I’ve never looked back.

    Honor the gods as they present themselves to you.

    Blessings to you on your journey and quest.

  • This is brilliant, but one question: Does your conscience ever pester you?

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      That seems like a kind of insulting question…

      • Yeah, um, after posting up I realized it could be taken as insulting in several different ways. That’s what I get for being so terse. Perhaps a better way to phrase it would have been this: You talked about gods pestering people, and said your gods don’t pester you, and this is because your gods aren’t persons. But I wonder if you have ever had the common experience of being pestered by your conscience, and if so do you conceive of your conscience as a person, and does this throw any light on the questions raised here? I hope that query can be received in the respectful manner in which it is intended.

        • I totally took it in the way you intended. No worries. I had a similar thought, but the more I tried to build those connections the more resistance I got.

  • Henry Buchy

    “9 Now, the question is raised: ‘Since
    people think that they will become the Whole by knowing brahman, what did
    brahman know that enabled it to become the Whole?’

    10 In the beginning
    this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (Atman), thinking: ‘I am
    brahman.’ As a result, it became the Whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever
    realized this, Only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers
    and among humans. Upon seeing this very Point, the seer Vamadeva proclaimed: ‘I
    was Manu, and I was the sun.’ This is true even now. If a man knows ‘I am
    brahman’ in this way, he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to
    prevent it, for he becomes their very self (Atman). So when a man venerates
    another deity, thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another’, he does not understand.
    As livestock is for men, so is he for the gods. As having a lot of livestock is
    useful to a man, so each man proves useful to the gods. The loss of even a
    single head of livestock is painful; how much more if many are lost. The gods,
    therefore, are not pleased at the prospect of men coming to understand
    Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.9-10
    from Upanishads, a new
    translation,Patrick Olivelle,Oxford World Classics

    • So the gods don’t want humans to become enlightened?! That’s a radical thought.

      • Henry Buchy

        let’s just say they aren’t pleased at the prospect, but there’s not a thing they can do about it. as radical goes, conservative estimates place it around 500 b.c.e. as written

      • Megan Hinshaw

        Fascinating right! I’ve actually wondered this myself but had never come across in religious literature before.

  • Scott Oden

    My problem is this: my god-box is empty, but I don’t really want it to be. I want it to be filled with a rich pantheon of great antiquity, filled with mystery and myth, and tied in to spiritual literature like Homer or Hesiod or Sallustius. I know that to fill my god-box I need only adopt the spiritual mindset of the ancient Greek or the ancient Egyptian or the ancient Celt. But, I am none of these. I am a 21st century American living in a fully Christianized country. My mindset is mechanized, urban, electronic. My mindset is rational. Thunder is not the wrath of Zeus, for instance, but rather the sound caused by lightning — itself a complex series of naturally-occurring factors that meld to create an electrostatic discharge. I can *poetically* refer to it has having to do with Zeus, but that’s an affectation that has nothing to do with reality.

    I am not bereft of imagination — I am an author of historical fiction set in Antiquity and of historical fantasy — but that imagination is tempered by the reality of the world I live in. I can imagine all manner of supernatural happenings, but to me there is a great gulf between imagining something and believing what you imagine truly exists. I can imagine Zeus, but if he only exists inside my head then what is the difference between that and garden-variety delusions? And if Zeus only exists inside my head, am I not merely worshiping and propitiating my own subconscious?

    I wish and hope to someday have a divine experience. But, I am afraid that if such a moment was to happen I could never trust the truth of it, for it would not be a sudden, worldwide appearance of Zeus, but a voice inside my own head that could have easily been conjured by my own desire.

    • I think I know how you feel.

      • Scott Oden

        Mostly I feel left out, as though I’m missing some kind of essential component that would allow me to experience the Divine like the balance of humanity. Agnosticism is not fulfilling, but I can’t quite make that leap of faith to believe what I hear inside my skull is the voice of a God.

        • Kenneth Apple

          Isn’t some of this a matter of interpretation? (This always gets John into trouble, but here I go…) I’ve written fiction myself, and been surprised and sometimes pissed off at my characters. Sometimes they just do stuff you didn’t expect and hadn’t planned for. It’s a fine line between enough planning and too much, if you remove the mystery from what you are writing then what is the point of writing it? But that feeling of voices in your head that don’t seem to come from your head, I’ve had that. Now, like you I can’t interpret that as voices that are actually from outside myself. Not that I wouldn’t want to, but I can’t, it’s not how my mind works. You don’t have to choose, though, between belief and disbelief, you just have to let the mystery be mysterious. Or all of us guys mired in the materialist viewpoint can get together and drop acid and write a book and be Ram Das. Somehow I don’t think MY wife would approve though.

          • Scott Oden

            Probably because I *am* a writer is why I don’t credit the voices in my head with divinity. And you’re right, Kenneth: there is a great deal of mystery as to how some of those voices got there and from whence they originate. Same goes with some of the imagery I get. One of my strong points, if you believe reviews, is the ability to conjure a place or a time. I could say it’s a mystery, that the hand of some God moves me to write of these things I’ve never seen, of times I’ve never lived. But that would be disingenuous. I can conjure place and time because I read voraciously about those places and times, and have the good fortune of being imaginative and capable of relating an image formed of research in a concise and engaging manner. And if I really examine them, most of the voices have their genesis in real-world connections, such as something I see on the street or read in a book. Some, especially the voices of protagonists, are subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of wish fulfillment: I am not a man of action, so I tend to gravitate toward characters who are exactly that.

            • Scott Oden

              I was a Hellenic Reconstructionist, for a time (Kenneth probably remembers this, as we’re old friends on Facebook), but I could never get over the idea that the gods of Hellas behaved *exactly* the same as the Christian god: because they move in mysterious ways they can only contact we mere mortals via wholly unverifiable moments of personal gnosis or through the most subtle of clues and omens. Was that voice Hermes? Was that swirling zephyr a sign from Apollo? My tenure as a Hellene ended with me standing in a violent, lightning-laced thunderstorm — daring Zeus to strike me down.

              Disenchanted — and still alive — I went looking for the gods in the physical world. I forced my dislike for eclecticism aside and looked everywhere, and the only thing I could come up with, the only thing that could be divine but didn’t operate on the same plane as disembodied voices and subtle omens, was this: the Sun, the Earth itself, and Inspiration. Sol Invictus, Gaia, and the Muses, if you will. Sol Invictus gives life; he interacts with Gaia to create food, water, and shelter; and the Muses give us a needed push in the right direction to populate the world with science, art, drama, and discourse. And none of them cared if I offered up a prayer or a sacrifice. Whether I acknowledged them or not, these theophantic Gods continued to provide for my basic needs. They did not judge me. They were represented in every human pantheon from every age of the Earth. They gained personalities and backstories, thanks to the Muses, but their basic functions remained the same.

              I was glad for the revelation, but again disenchanted: uncaring Gods who eschewed personal contact sort of went against the purpose of my search. I retreated back to agnosticism for a time, and then inched my way here, to Naturalistic Paganism. Writing this, however, reminds me that I may have been on to something. Perhaps my “god-box” isn’t quite as empty as I thought . . .

            • Scott, this is awesome. Thank you for sharing. I would live to republish this or something like it at HumanisticPaganism. Are you interested?

            • Scott Oden

              Absolutely, John! I’d be honored. My email is scottoden (at) gmail (dot) com; just let me know what you need, or if I can expand on what I’ve written here.

        • Kenneth Apple

          You’re a novelist. You bring places and people who don’t exist to life in people’s imaginations by manipulating the symbols we’ve invented to represent an already non-concrete thing called language. There’s no useful definition of ‘magic’ that doesn’t include that in it. Who needs gods when you’ve got that?

        • DverWinter

          FWIW, you might try looking outside of your own skull. Even for devout believers, it can be hard to discern between the voices of the gods, and our own minds. So I always counsel people to look elsewhere. Ask for omens, pay attention to signs. It’s harder to dismiss something that happens in objective physical reality but entirely coincides with your prayers.

          • Actually, it’s quite easy to “dismiss” omens and signs as either projections of subjective meaning or examples of Littlewood’s law that observant people can expect to experience a “miracle” (one in a million chance event) once a month.

            • DverWinter

              One or two here or there, sure. But if the gods want to make Themselves clear, They can be very dramatic, in a way that is difficult to dismiss (multiple extremely improbable events coinciding, or just one really really obvious sign). I’m certainly not one to ascribe divine meaning to every coincidence, but there are some that are hard to ignore. At least looking for external confirmation is a little less doubt-inducing than trying to decide if a voice you hear in your head or a picture you get in your mind is a god or not. You’ve got something tangible to work with, it’s just the interpretation that is up for debate.

              On the other hand, if your mind is set against it, you will try to find some mundane reason for everything, even when the divine explanation is actually the more likely one. Someone who is absolutely closed off against even the possibility of a divine encounter will probably miss the opportunity, even if the gods are actually trying to get their attention.

              The question for someone in this position is – is the possibility of interpreting something mundane as something divine, and perhaps feeling a bit foolish for it, more of a problem than being so insistently “rational” that one shuts off all possibility of divine communication? If you want the gods in your life, you have to be open to Them actually coming. Otherwise, probably best to just accept being an atheist/agnostic.

            • I agree.

            • Shannon Menkveld

              Or, perhaps, the Divine, whatever It/They actually are, communicates with each of us differently, because there are things that a finite human cranium cannot contain… they don’t fit.

              We all bring our limitations with us wherever we go. If nothing else, the Second Law of Thermodynamics requires it to be so.


  • Good for you. You’re your own kind of mystic. I think it’s great that you’ve been so interested in other people’s kinds, and I hope that doesn’t stop, but it sounds to me like this is a very healthy and helpful realization. Cheers.

    • Maybe it will just change my tone when I approach others religions. I think that might be good.

  • I’ve always had a different way of distinguishing between X and the god/dess of X–for me the deity is a personification/metaphor of how a particular place and culture has experienced and related to X. So Poseidon is the-sea-as-they-experienced-and-related-to-it (and others still do experience and relate to it) and Yemaya is another version of that and Manannan is another. Different facets of the same jewel maybe. The jewel itself is the “real” thing and the deities are the facets or maybe lenses we use to see/feel/experience/understand it.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    And this is exactly why I call myself a devotional polytheist despite not being a “hard polytheist” as such- because I experience direct encounters with deities and other powers. Ecstatic devotion, in my experience, is a natural reaction to such an encounter.

  • I am only at the point that i find it fascinating how theses matters are discussed. I wasnt following the online pagan world beyond my country for a long time. I didnt realize that there is actual a word for what someone would describe me: devotional polytheism. ok…great. So now i learn that there was a lot of discussion going on concerning actual experience versus “mere” belief. (shall i call it that way? yes it sounds odd…sorry)
    I am surprised we arrived at a point that “my kind” sounds like an elite. Hm thats a pity.
    I was more concerned the whole time i was alone with theses experiences as possible phantasies of my mind or a primitive being in the eyes of others. or at least a strange crazy person…all the other belief systems sounded so educated and more plausible.
    But well so changed a part of the world.

    Do i think that polytheism is not for everyone? No, maybe devotional isnt for everyone…most of the time when i experienced something what i call a true contact it also was somehow frightening in one way or the other. So i would tend more to call it the mystic approach. Its too close to other paths in the world where experiences with divine beings come to fruition more or less.
    But not necessarily.

    I didnt start that way. I always saw the myths first as metaphors for the forces of nature. And in that way often more close to the scientific truth.
    I belived that there are possible beings of another consciousness living in a way in dimensions we dont percieve with our normal awareness.
    What do we know? Why shouldnt there be something just we dont see it all the time?
    Like someone said mabe there isnt a nymph in the trees but it would have been better if we had believed that.
    Thats how it started. Thats how i can imagine polytheism could be for everyone. In a way of not centralistic thinking, of believing the world is made out of many forces, divine, pluralistic and not almighty and whatever they are now or not they are part of the world which follows natural rules, which we can learn to understand more and more.

    The other half of the world belongs to polytheistic belief systems. It doesnt matter there that most dont have experiences. When someone has it its most often the time also someone who follows a spiritual path.
    And i think that is always the problem. Most of neopagans start out with a kind of a felt call, not knowing where to go, full of doubts maybe, full of problems with self-worth maybe, confronted with aggressive manipulative belief systems maybe…

    So i do believe polyheism is for everyone. One doesnt have to actually feel a gods presence or talk with it. Maybe that wouldnt be healthy. I think it is enough to feel a certain awe and love for something they represent and maybe feel inspired just like that.
    Many poets in my country were inspired by myths and maybe gods unknowing. Isnt that enough. I would like to see more polytheists come out and not be left out because they dont experience great things.
    Thats not necessary. I think polytheims is more connected with a certain way to see the world, full of possible diversity.

  • Erin Lale

    “Do the gods pester you?” Oh gods yes. lol. I’m embarrassed about it, actually.

    I can simultaneously feel / hear / see them in my mind’s eye and know that they are also nature and metaphor, and further, I think they know they are symbolic. I have always had mystical experiences, even before I knew what a heathen or pagan was. I’ve had plenty of actual mystical experiences with the gods, and with landwights, etc. THIS is not a mystical experience, though. It’s a silly conversation, the kind I might have with a human being, if said human being were living in my head (and was so powerful he could crush me with a thought, if he so chose, but he doesn’t, because that would be boring, and he finds me hilarious only so long as I keep slightly resisting him.)

    THIS started happening when I started writing a novel in which some of the gods are characters. I have always heard the fictional characters I write about talking to each other in my head; that’s always how I’ve written fiction and poetry. The fictional ones don’t talk directly to ME, though.

    THIS: Walking down the hallway, I spot a bit of dust on the
    floor under the air return. His voice in my head: “You should clean
    that up.” / “I will, when I do the whole floor.” / “It’s a tiny little
    corner, just get down there and clean it.” / “Picky, picky, Loki, Frigga
    doesn’t care if I leave dust on my floor, why do you care so much?” /
    “Just f***ing clean it.” / “OK, OK, there, I cleaned it.” / HAHAhaha, I

  • Annika

    I am definitely a Romantic, that’s what speaks to my heart, and that’s what, in my opinion, created the Neopagan movement in the first place, romanticism of the rustic life. We can’t help but view the past with modern eyes.

  • Tracie Holladay

    So for a humanist pagan, is the earth a divine being? How do you all view this?

    • Different Humanistic Pagans would answer that differently. There’s a good article on different types of Humantistic/Naturalistic Pagans here:

      For myself, I would answer that question in the affirmative (although we might define “divine being” differently). I would probably say that the material universe is divine Being (a verb) and that the earth and we are a part of that.

      Other HPs/NPs have no use for the term “divine”.